03/18/2003 12:00AM

Nine-furlong preps provide best clues

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LAS VEGAS - It happens every year. Some 3-year-old stylishly wins a maiden, allowance, or stakes race up to 1 1/16 miles and becomes the flavor of the week and a "Derby contender." But, the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown trail begins in earnest with the prep races at 1 1/8 miles. While the Louisiana Derby, Fountain of Youth, Santa Catalina, and San Felipe stakes - all at 1 1/16 miles - are important preps, the true barometers for assessing 3-year-olds are the Florida, Arkansas, and Santa Anita derbies, plus the Lane's End, Wood Memorial, and Blue Grass stakes, all of which are run at nine furlongs.

There is no doubt Trust N Luck is a quality individual, but at 1 1/8 miles, he was never going to defeat Empire Maker, who was bred to relish classic distances. Trust N Luck is by the suddenly fashionable Montbrook, whose runners are best known for their brilliance. Trust N Luck is reminiscent of another son of Montbrook, Outofthebox, who was bandied about as a Kentucky Derby candidate a few years ago. Although Outofthebox was injured and did not get to compete in the Derby, it might have been a blessing. Anyone lucky enough to own a Montbrook may argue this point, but the reality is Montbrooks are true milers who sometimes get 1 1/8 miles, but only under the best scenarios. The brilliance shown by Montbrook's runners diminishes with every furlong beyond one mile.

Regarding Empire Maker, the naysayers now know what the fuss is all about. With his classic pedigree (Unbridled out of the stakes-producing machine Toussaud), Empire Maker not only has the tools to win the Kentucky Derby, but the Triple Crown as well. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding his ability. Even with his lopsided win in the Florida Derby, he was still green, never switching leads until a few jumps from the wire. With room for so much improvement, and another solid prep forthcoming in the Wood Memorial, Empire Maker should peak on the day that counts.

I have always believed that it was only a matter of time before an A.P. Indy colt wins the Kentucky Derby. Unraced at 2, Pulpit burst onto the racing scene at Gulfstream, winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes and finishing second in the Florida Derby. After winning the Blue Grass Stakes, he finished fourth in the 1997 Kentucky Derby despite an injury during the race, which necessitated his retirement. If not for a super talent named Fusaichi Pegasus, Aptitude would have easily won the 2000 Derby. If Empire Maker falters, A.P. Indy has some stayers who will appreciate 1 1/4 miles and Churchill Downs's long stretch, starting with the flashy chestnut Atswhatimtalknbout.

Looking as green as could be in the San Felipe Stakes, Atswhatimtalknbout just missed catching longshot Buddy Gil by a nostril, but this effort sets him up perfectly for the longer Santa Anita Derby. Is there any doubt that Atswhatimtalknbout will prove best going longer? Buddy Gil followed his Baldwin Stakes victory on turf with a determined effort in the San Felipe Stakes, but winning at 1 1/16 miles does not translate to victory at 1 1/4 miles. Conversely, Brancusi, the third-place finisher, should be even better beyond

1 1/16 miles, and his effort off a maiden victory proved he belongs with the big boys. A late-bloomer like his sire, Travers Stakes winner Deputy Commander, he gets a ton of stamina and class from his damsire, Alysheba, and his female family. His second dam, Treizieme, defeated males as a 2-year-old in the Grand Criterium. This is a colt with lots of upside.

Indy Dancer had no chance in the Florida Derby after a horrendous start. After a half-mile it appeared he was in another zip code and hopelessly out of the race. On a track unkind to deep closers, Indy Dancer nevertheless closed well to finish third, right behind a weary Trust N Luck. A fast pace and 1 1/4 miles seem tailor-made for Indy Dancer, and one more prep will set him up nicely for the Derby. In addition to A.P. Indy, he gets class from his dam, Dance With Grace (Mr. Prospector), a full sister to stakes winner Souvenir Copy, one of last year's promising freshman sires.

Another A.P. Indy colt to watch is Political Risk, who is out of Coaching Club American Oaks winner Two Altazano. Off to a late start, Political Risk may not be ready for the fast-approaching Kentucky Derby, but could bloom this summer as a serious racehorse.

Region of Merit was not overwhelming winning the Tampa Bay Derby. Jockey Eibar Coa said the horse was uncomfortable throughout the race. Region of Merit is by Touch Gold, whose first crop of runners includes multiple stakes winner Composure, Swale Stakes winner Midas Eyes, and Powerful Touch, who was second in the Holy Bull before being sidelined by an injury. Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold is poised to become a very important stallion because he is a rare stamina influence for dirt and turf.

With most of the 1 1/8-mile Derby preps still to come, it may come down to colts (and a very strongly made filly) by either Unbridled, A.P. Indy, or Touch Gold to lead the way the first Saturday in May.